For those too young — or, at the time, perhaps too messed up — to remember New York's infamous nightspot The World on Avenue C in the East Village, here's the tableau: It's New Year's Eve 1989, and the line is around the block to ring in the '90s with Public Enemy, which is scheduled to hit the stage shortly after midnight. Inside, the downstairs room heaves and sweats to the latest hip-hop jams, and as the excitement builds, I spy a friend and fellow struggling journalist. He extends greetings in the form of a mixtape. “You've gotta check this out,” he says without explanation. I didn't know it then, but the tape was a segment of the radio show In Control With Marley Marl from WBLS, and the DJ on the decks was a 19-year-old kid named Pete Rock.
Within a couple of years, Rock would emerge as one of hip-hop's most innovative and forward-thinking producers. What set him apart from the rest was his refined taste for complex horn and string arrangements, as well as his uncanny ability to unearth that rare, essential break. The six-song EP All Souled Out (Elektra, 1991) marked his arrival on the scene with longtime confidante and rhyme stylist C.L. Smooth, and it featured the track that became the centerpiece and title cut for the duo's subsequent breakthrough, Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra, 1992). That album would open all lines of communication to the hip-hop underground by yielding the gutsy single “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” which remains a classic to this day. But it was Rock's horn-heavy, stupefyingly funky remix of Public Enemy's “Shut 'Em Down,” released in January 1992 (a full six months before the appearance of Mecca), that almost single-handedly secured his place in the pantheon.
“That was my real big debut on the production tip,” Rock recalls, “and it would have never come out if the Bomb Squad hadn't loved it. I mean, to me, the original way of doing a remix was about changing the whole beat altogether, you know, to make something hotter than the original. When I made that, I remember I was just in my basement, playing around with music and making beats, and, suddenly, I was just like, wow, this one is really hot. They didn't know what to expect, and then boom, I came with that, and they were in love with it.”
Rock's creative spate with C.L. Smooth reached a new level of sophistication with The Main Ingredient (Elektra, 1994), even as he pursued a seemingly endless wave of remixes and production work for the likes of Run-DMC; EPMD; Brand Nubian; Das EFX; and, perhaps most significant, Nas' senses-shattering debut, Illmatic (Sony/Columbia, 1994) — a master stroke of hip-hop production that counted DJ Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip among its other contributors. Rock had suddenly ascended to the top of the hip-hop game — until just as quickly, in 1995, he and Smooth called it quits when Elektra opted out of the group's contract.
The split never deterred Rock from staying true to his art, and he has continued producing and mixing for a slew of A-list artists ever since. In 1998, Loud Records CEO Steve Rifkind signed him to a one-album solo deal, which yielded the stellar Soul Survivor — a sprawling family affair that featured guest shots from various members of Wu-Tang Clan, as well as Smooth, MC Eiht, The Roots' Black Thought and just about every other rap star on the Loud roster at the time.
With Soul Survivor II (BBE/Rapster, 2004), the long-awaited sequel to that much-vaunted solo debut, Rock comes correct with yet another massive team effort. Featuring three all-new tracks with Smooth — along with mic checks from RZA, GZA, Dead Prez, Pharoahe Monch, J-Dilla and scads more — this is hip-hop the way it was meant to be, the way it should always be: real, raw, ghetto-fabulous and damn funky.
BACK TO THE ESSENCE
“I'd been working on this record for about a year, and I just felt it was time to come with something different,” Rock says. “I mean, a lot has been said about it already, but I'm not even trying to save hip-hop. I want hip-hop to always be around and have a strong presence, but I feel like the golden age brought something to the table that's just so amazing, so creative, so productive — I think it defined what hip-hop was, what hip-hop is. You have certain artists out there where you can just hear in the music that they're not real fans; they're just in it to either be famous or make money. It's cool to make money, but don't shit on the craft. You know what I'm sayin'?”
From the Funk Box To the Final Mix
Pete Rock has long been known as a wily veteran of the E-mu SP-1200 sampler and drum machine (once referred to by Large Professor as having “the raw sound that just brings it home”), and to this day, he relies on that unit, along with an Akai MPC2000XL, to build his signature beats.
“The difference between the two is that the SP sounds fuller,” Rock says. “When you sample a kick, it's like two times fatter. The MPC gives you a thinner sound, but you can make it thick. It depends on how you do your shit and if you're using your head and making music.”
When pressed on how he gets a “thicker” sound on the MPC, Rock doesn't exactly rush to reveal his secrets. “I mean, I can't tell you all my methods,” he quips, “but, usually, I would EQ the sounds before I sample them. I have a little 8-track mixing board that lets me do that.”
From there, Rock works with his longtime recording engineer, Jamey Staub. Sometimes, they'll convene at Staub's Empire Vu Studio in Manhattan, although for most of Soul Survivor II, they used several different studios in the city. “Once Pete has a basic beat going, with maybe a variation or two sequenced, he'll start to arrange it into a song,” Staub explains. “After that, we take all separate outputs from the SP or the MPC and go to 2-inch tape. For this record, a lot of times, we bounced back from the tape into Pro Tools and then sent the session to the other artists for vocals — you know, a lot of them have their own Pro Tools setup. If Pete liked what came back, we'd use it straight; otherwise, we might shift it around a little bit before going to the final mix.”
For pitch shifting and time stretching, the Akai S1000 used to be Rock's unit of choice until he moved up to the S3000 and, eventually, to Eventide Harmonizers. “We do all that now in Pro Tools and Logic Audio,” Staub continues. “We'll drop in the rough beat, and if any musical element needs to be stretched or tuned, we can do it all in the computer. I actually haven't upgraded to Logic 6 yet, but I'm hoping once somebody at Emagic reads this, they'll send me an upgrade!” [Laughs.]
A Neve VR console at New York's Manhattan Center Studios (frequented of late by such luminaries as Timbaland and Missy Elliott) provided the key ingredient to the ever-essential thickness of the final mix. Staub breaks it down again: “We'd bring in a Pro Tools session and run that through the Neve to a Studer ½-inch tape machine and simultaneously back into Pro Tools. Pete would decide at mastering whether to use the ½-inch mix or the Pro Tools mix, depending on what felt right sonically.”
Beyond the gear and technology, Rock's true secret weapon — like any hip-hop producer who stakes his rep on the uniqueness of his breaks — is his formidable record collection, which lately is rumored to top some 60,000 slabs of wax. “I've been over to his house, and everywhere you look — every corner, every wall — there's records,” Staub says. “His record collection is what he builds from, and once he has an idea, he's a master of the 1200 and the MPC. That's really all he needs.”
If Rock sounds fired up, it's not only because he's looking to shake up the MTV-controlled dynamic of today's hip-hop mainstream but also to stress the reality that the music on Soul Survivor II embraces the principles of the past even as it offers a vivid glimpse of possible futures. The psychedelic, dub-inflected opening track, “Truth Is” — with its bright, jazzy horn breaks and the poetry-slam rap style of newcomer Black Ice — is a radical departure from the raw, compressed sound that old-school heads might expect from Rock. It segues into Kardinal Offishal's “We Good,” which revolves around the familiar sample of Mandrill's “Mango Meat” (first heard in 1988 to stunning effect on the Jungle Brothers' joint “Straight Out the Jungle”) — surely a nod to hip-hop's golden years, but with Rock at the controls, the guitar riff gets a weirdly chopped, syncopated twist in swirling stereo.
“Actually, that first Jungle Brothers album was one I liked a lot,” Rock says with admiration. “They had a lot of great beats on that album. I think I was trying to do something totally different here, but it was something familiar, too, just to see if I could catch people's ears.”
“It's a Love Thing” almost conjures a new-jack-swing vibe in its melding of hip-hop and R&B sources, with the incomparable Smooth gushing with b-boy romantics while background singer Denosh warbles sensuously over Philly strings and horns that wind through the groove. It's a warm contrast to the stark-naked Wu-Tang sound (which Rock emulates beautifully) of “Head Rush,” which aptly enough features RZA and GZA trading inspired linguistic strikes as though they're sparring in a dojo.
“I got love for Wu-Tang, and I always will,” Rock says. “Those cats are a perfect example of staying hip-hop but coming with something different, you know, doing stuff that people never did. You never heard nine MCs on one song, and they were all dope. And then they had that sort of guillotine style where they would incorporate martial arts into the music. I mean, nobody's done that, so I love them for that. We need more of that in hip-hop.”
In his quest to keep fueling the growth of hip-hop, Rock has always left himself open to evolutions in sound, style and technology while never losing touch with the street. “I'm not saying that hip-hop is all underground, but it starts underground,” he says. “Once you get your feet wet, you can change it up a little bit but always with that element of hip-hop in your music. It's cool to branch off and do other shit, just to show that you have a versatile talent — I've always been the type to do that. I mean, I've always stuck with underground hip-hop, but I've done bigger records, too.”
Long past are the days of the Amek APC 1000 console at Greene Street Recording in Soho, the legendary hip-hop studio where Public Enemy tracked parts of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) and where Rock did most of the final mixes, with engineer Jamey Staub, for his early classic albums with Smooth. And although his basic tools and approach for building rough beats have hardly changed during the years (see the sidebar “From the Funk Box to the Final Mix”), Rock is ever-vigilant about new advances in improving the sonic experience, especially when it comes to audio imaging and low end. Take a close listen to SSII's “It's the Postaboy” on a good set of speakers, and you can feel the track moving over and around you. According to Staub, this effect was achieved in the mastering process with a custom-built MS (middle/side) matrix box, which splits a conventional stereo signal into a mono middle and stereo sides that can be compressed and otherwise manipulated separately for a wider, fatter sound. (Check out Millenia Music & Media's MSD-2 Matrix M-S Encoding/Decoding System as an alternative if you don't have access to a custom box.)
“I've always been into a full sound where everything is just like boom, you know, and you can hear every piece of sound in the studio,” Rock says. “That's why I get excited creating a beat at home, because I know that once I bring it down to the studio, I can expand it and make it sound really big.”
Throughout his career, Rock has learned a thing or two about blowing up, but he has been consistent in his commitment to the history and the future of the music he helped to put on the map. “It's important to show some respect for what put you here; you know what I mean?” he says. “That's why you see careers come and go. Hopefully, these young cats today know what they're doing as far as that's concerned, because if they don't, later on, they're gonna find out how important it is to be on top of your business and to make music that's gonna keep longevity. That's the key so that 10 years from now, people will still be asking you when your next record is coming out.” In fact, that was the burning question circulating among Rock's fans when he was out on the road back in the late '90s, touring in support of the first Soul Survivor album: When are you and C.L. Smooth going to reunite?
“It's basically been about 10 years for us, so it's amazing that still nothing's lost,” Rock says. “Everything is still there, thank God — my beats are still crazy, and C.L.'s lyrics are still ridiculous. [Laughs.] It's amazing to come back 10 years later and still have the talent. Most people are not that lucky, but you know, now that we're back, we've gotta give people what they've been missing.”
PETE ROCK SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
All Souled Out (Elektra, 1991), with C.L. Smooth
Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra, 1992), with C.L. Smooth
The Main Ingredient (Elektra, 1994), with C.L Smooth
Rare Tracks (WEA International, 1998), with C.L. Smooth, UK-only
Soul Survivor (Loud/RCA, 1998)
Diggin' on Blue (EMI/Blue Note, 1999), Japan-only mix compilation
PeteStrumentals (BBE/Rapster, 2001)
4 Pete Sake: The Pete Rock Years — Remixes Vol. 1 (BBE, 2003), UK-only
Good Life: The Best of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth (Elektra/Rhino, 2003)
Lost and Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics (BBE/Rapster, 2003)
REMIXES AND PRODUCTION
Black Star feat. Black Thought, “Respiration”
Brand Nubian, “Slow Down”
De La Soul, “Stay Away”
Gang Starr feat. Big Shug & Freddie Foxx, “The Militia”
Johnny Gill, “Rub You the Right Way”
House of Pain, “Jump Around”
Naughty by Nature, “Hip-Hop Hooray”
Public Enemy, “Nighttrain (Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved Mixx),” “Shut 'Em Down”
Run-DMC, “Down With the King”